A media enthusiast, Devyani believes in learning on the job and there is nothing off limits when it comes to work. Writing is her passion and she is always ready for a debate as well.
"We've spent night on the footpath or sometimes under the bridge in one of Maharashtra's stations as we had no other place to go. At times when I woke up in the middle of the night, I had to face the sight of people looking down on me, men gawking at me," Zoya Lobo huffs as she talks about her life before attaining the mark of being India's first transgender photojournalist.
A resident of Bandra West in Maharashtra's Mumbai, Zoya Thomas Lobo has beaten the odds to become the country's first trans freelance photojournalist. From seeking alms in Mumbai trains for more than a decade, working in a decoration line, moving on to work in a nursery, to clicking pictures for major national and local publications, Lobo has become a breathing testament to changing dreams into reality.
The 27-year-old was provided with a convent education until class fifth but dropped out of school early. She spent her childhood in Mahime Bhatiya, a Brother's Cooperative Housing Society, where her father worked as a watchman. Lobo grew up in a Christian community.
Later, her father died due to health complications, and the family had to leave society due to the ongoing dispute over the flat they had rented.
Despite her mother fighting for her rights and eventually claiming the flat, the family decided to vacate and went to stay with the mother's sister. Lobo left with her widowed mother and sister for Kapad Bazaar in Mahim West, where she spent most of her years.
It was tough for the mother to raise two kids all by herself without any financial aid. As a result, she suffered from depression and developed a habit of drinking alcohol occasionally.
Lobo took admission at the Don Bosco School. To support the family, she took a part-time job at a nearby bakery. The family also received monthly ration from the Church they visited.
During the same period, Lobo also recognised she was different from other children. But she couldn't open up to anyone for fear of being scolded by family or, for worse, abandoned. So she hid her identity for nearly five to six years before finally coming out to her family at 17. But she had made a few friends in the area, with whom she felt comfortable enough to come out to them at 15.
The family soon moved out of the aunt's house and started taking shelter near different railway stations, where, at times, they had to face people's wrath
To earn a livelihood, Lobo resorted to taking up odd jobs— working in a bakery, being employed in a nursery to collecting tickets, and sweeping theatre halls in South Mumbai's Grant Road.
At one time, while travelling on a bus, a dance teacher from her school recognised her and told her she wasn't meant for such meagre jobs. Following this, Lobo started working as a part-time receptionist at his dance studio, but it was later shut.
Later, she joined as a worker in a bakery in the Bandra area. This time, she opened up to her mother and told her about having found a Guru. It wasn't easy for the mother to come to terms with her child's identity. Lobo assured her that she would not fall prey to any objectionable work and would ask for money in trains.
Recalling her first time on the train, Lobo said her mother accompanied her and helped her drape the saree every day before she left for work.
Found Her Guru At 17
After confirming her identity with the family, Lobo found her Guru, Salma, who recognised her as a transgender person. The Guru introduced her to the group, where she was accepted. The Guru had christened her as 'Seema', but she later changed her name to Zoya'.
The 27-year-old saved enough to rent a room for her family and moved away from hunting footpaths. She kept her interest in photography to herself, considering it as a far-fetched dream.
Her obstacles, however, didn't seem to have an end. Whatever she earned from the train and her part-time jobs, her mother, at times, took the money to buy alcohol whenever she had the urge.
They left the room she had rented due to the dispute in the society and landed on the streets of the Mumbai Press Club area. They had to constantly shift from place to place because the police hushed them away.
She was subjected to torture under the Guru she had recently started working with. They even shaved her hair, after which she left the community immediately. Unfortunately, around the same time, in 2016, her mother passed away.
Speaking to The Logical Indian, Lobo narrated an incident she faced while travelling on the train (Marine lines-Bandra) in the evening, when she along with another man, was harassed by a cop dressed in civil. She couldn't run for long and was held by other policemen the cop had called.
The police took them to the Grant Road chowki, where they stripped them naked and asked them to perform in front of the policemen. The duo was mercilessly beaten up by the group of men.
"We're fetishised. We're not viewed as humans for most of the times," Lobo says.
She even lodged a complaint to the nearby police station, but no action was initiated against the accused. After the application remained pending for a year, she lost all hope and never approached the station again.
Though she continued travelling on the train, she would be wary of staying back later after having experienced the horrific incident.
While begging on the train for almost a decade, she saved the amount enough to buy a digital camera for herself. Never in her life she had given a thought of buying a camera, given the numerous challenges she had to face, and start afresh.
By the time she shifted to Hyderabad and started working under another guru, Lobo says her life changed for the good. "My life changed, even in terms of how I dealt with inhuman behaviour. I don't live in fear anymore."
But her life took a massive turn after she worked in a short film based on transgender people's life. She had come across a short film, 'Hijra Shap ki Vardaan-Part 1' on YouTube. She identified certain inaccuracies in the movie and mentioned them in the comments section, following which the director contacted her, which led her to the film's sequel. The film amassed millions of viewership, and Lobo won an award for her performance.
While attending the award function, she met Srinith Singh, owner of a Maharashtra daily. After having introduced each other, Singh offered her to report for his newspaper thereby making her country's first trans freelance journalist.
Along with her reporter's job, she continued to beg in trains. She had collected about ₹18,000-20,000 by that point and bought her first second-hand camera from Mumbai's Bora Bazar in 2019.
Out of interest, she covered a 'pink' rally the same year, where transgender people were protesting for their equal rights. "There, I met a senior photojournalist for the European Pressphoto Agency, Divyakant Solanki, who introduced me to the photojournalism field."
The following year, in 2020, while travelling on the train, she saw thousands of migrant labourers protesting outside Bandra station. She rushed to her room and got her camera to capture the demonstrations. The photographs she clicked were picked up by various publications that had first heard of her name.
Since then, she has covered the coronavirus pandemic, the vaccination drives. In addition, she holds a keen interest in street and wildlife photography and has posted most of her work on her social media accounts.
"Journalism has changed my way of life. Not only it has paved the way for work, but I have changed even as a person," Lobo says.
Speaking on how gendered some professions are according to the people, Lobo says one is not defined by where they come from, but only by their passion and perseverance.
Designating a job to a particular gender naturally diminishes that gender's authority in a society, and transgender people have been the prime sufferers. Lobo says we must focus on blurring these lines and look only at the individual's work.
Lobo urges all the transgenders, who have hidden their hobbies, passion, and talents due to unnecessary fear and mounting societal pressure, to come out and pursue them.
Though many national and international media outlets have recognised her work, Lobo is still struggling to secure a full-time job as a photojournalist, turning her passion into employment. She, however, does not get adequate compensation from the print publication she is currently freelancing for. "I have got a lot of exposure, and I intend to learn more."
She looks forward to better opportunities and hopes to get real-time experiences and bring out stories of people through her photography.
Thank you for subscribing.
We have sent you a confirmation email.